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You’re Not the Boss of Me

December 8, 2009

“What would you do if a friend’s parent told you not to read a specific book?”

This was the question posed by Ellen Hopkins to a table of teenagers at the 2009 Anderson’s YA Conference.

And yeah. I know that was back in September. But the thing is, the issue of “appropriate” content keeps coming up as it relates to Ellen’s work. Some school districts and libraries are canceling her scheduled visits because certain groups of parent’s don’t want their kids to be privy to the subject matter of Ellen’s books.

This occurred back in September in Norman, OK. and more recently in Leroy, NY. In the case of Norman, Ellen had what I thought was a reasonable suggestion in response to one parent’s concern; allow the kids and their parents to opt out of the presentation if they so chose. But that wasn’t good enough, this parent replied.

“I don’t want ANY of the kids to hear Ellen speak.”

I’m sorry, but WTF? I’m not saying each parent doesn’t have a right to choose for THEIR child. I’m saying I have a problem with someone ELSE’S parent choosing for my child. And while there are those who think it makes sense, i.e. “We don’t want our kids exposed to the realities of the world until later,” (more on that further down), what if it were a group of parents forcing you to listen a presentation on White Supremacy? Holocaust denial?

Well, that’s crazy talk, right? Who would advocate that? Who would APPROVE of it?

But the principle’s the same; one or two parents (or even a group! hell, who cares how many?) deciding what YOU, as a teenager, can read. Now you’re OWN parent obviously has some rights there, but that’s a whole other situation, isn’t it?

Would you let your friend’s parent tell you how to dress? How to speak? How to write your name? How to wear your hair?

Knowing the teenagers I know, I think not.

How is this any different? And this isn’t a rhetorical question here. Everyone who knows me knows that I LOVE teenagers. I adore your enthusiasm and passion for life and belief that anything is possible, and I learn from you guys every day. So, I’m really asking; How is allowing someone else’s parent to tell you what to read or listen to any different than allowing them to make other decisions on your behalf?

And if it’s not, why aren’t more parents – and teens, because you guys have a responsibility here, too, right? – speaking out against this kind of censorship?

Let’s put aside the fact that Ellen is the sincerest, hardest-working advocate for teens that I know. Let’s put aside the fact that she works tirelessly to get the word out to young people about the decisions they make now that can affect the rest of their lives.

In books like Crank, Glass, Impulse, and Tricks, Ellen writes about controversial subjects. Depression. Suicide. Drug abuse. Teen prostitution. I get that this makes some people uncomfortable. But do they think by ignoring it, you guys won’t be exposed to it? Are we REALLY at a place where we’re going to blackball a book (as one reviewer did after admitted to “skimming” Ellen’s book – I guess we’re past the days of actually reading a book before reviewing it) because of how many times it uses the word “fuck”?


Have these people ever ridden a middle- or high-school bus? Do they think you haven’t heard the word “fuck” – DON’T hear the word “fuck” on a daily basis? It’s just a word people. Don’t give it more power than it really has.

Or I guess maybe these same parents think these things only happen to “some” families. You know the ones – the one’s with… “issues”. Riiiiight. News flash! EVERYONE has problems. Even those of us who strive to be perfect parents, who put the needs of our children above all else, who are paying attention and talking to our kids about everything under the sun, well… guess what? We have problems, too. Our kids struggle and make bad decisions and make HUGE mistakes, too. They need to hear about this stuff as much as anybody else.

And doesn’t it matter that we have writers like Ellen who are speaking your language? That BECAUSE she’s speaking your language, you can more easily relate to the important, heart-breaking, gut-wrenching decisions teens face today? That because she’s speaking your language you feel like you’re hearing it from someone who KNOWS, not someone who’s just read about it in the newspaper and wants to feed you a campaign slogan like “Just Say No”? Doesn’t it matter that having writers like Ellen speak to you EARLY might save some of you from catastrophic decisions that will impact the rest of your life? And that Ellen does in it such a way that it stays with you, so that maybe, just maybe, when you’re at a party and someone offers your drugs, you WILL say no.

Not because you’re SUPPOSED to “Just Say No”, but because you have had a real and terrifying glimpse into the implications of saying “yes”?

Doesn’t it matter that Ellen can make you feel HOPE, so that the next time you feel full of despair, you might just remember that tomorrow is always a new day? That there’s ALWAYS a second chance for happiness?

These are the things that – as a parent and a writer and human being – weigh heavily on my mind. There are teens out there RIGHT NOW who can be saved by hearing Ellen’s message. They might be sitting next to you in Biology or English or Algebra. And you know what? Some of them aren’t going to get that message because someone ELSE’S parent says they shouldn’t have it.

You know what I think? I think it’s bullshit. And if it’s one thing I’m 100% sure of, it’s that no one can affect change like the young.

So what about you? What do you think? And what are you going to do about it when the opportunity arises?

24 Comments leave one →
  1. December 17, 2009 8:18 pm

    I can understand if a parent is concerned about their own child but deciding for other people’s kids is wrong. Personally – I was one of those kids who probably wouldn’t have benefited from reading a “difficult” subject matter book about sex or drugs or prostitution when I was middle school age as I don’t think I would have had the maturity to process the material and learn a lesson from it beyond being horrified. But, I did a pretty good job myself of picking out books I could handle and I think most preteens/teens can do the same.

  2. December 12, 2009 8:19 pm

    Wow, how ridiculous. Just because you might have certain limits and boundaries set on your how children, doesn’t mean that you get the right to pin those on the rest of them. If I had went to a school like that, some rumbles would’ve went down. And a lot of people would feel the wrath of my mother, which is never a good thing. Aside from that, I just have to point out this article reminded me of Mrs. Lincoln from Beautiful Creatures. Who bans Harry Potter? Seriously. Okay, there’s my two cents that probably don’t make any sense at all.

  3. December 9, 2009 1:13 am

    I agree with you too :o)

    I don’t want to hear the f-word, I don’t want to read the f-word… but I don’t dare say that you can’t. And I mention it in my reviews only to let teens and parents know… if it is appropriate for their teen or not. My group of friends in high school didn’t use the f-word, but we heard it on a daily basis… so it’s definitely not a shock. But I also know a lot of teens that don’t want to hear it or read it, so I point it out if it is used enough times to make me feel uncomfortable… but I don’t knock down a book’s rating because of it.

    Anyway, the point you made that no one can affect change like the youth is so accurate. They are smart enough to understand what is being thrown at them and if it’s something they want to accept. They are driven enough to either accept or reject that information and make a change with that acceptance or rejection. They are valiant enough to stick up for themselves and their beliefs. To take those abilities away, or merely limit them, is a grave mistake by adults. What adults do by censoring is telling that teen that they’re not smart enough, not driven enough, not valiant enough. It’s wrong. Teens are resilient, but they’re also impressionable, so if you tell them they can’t make decisions for themselves, they’ll grow up not making decisions or not thinking them through… do I think that parents should be involved and decide what their children can read? Absolutely. But do I think they should decide for someone else? Never. It’s important to be involved with the exposure that your children have to the world – you’re not going to be there for all of it, that would be impossible, but you have to be involved so you know how to parent the teen and when discussions are necessary so that you can help form their moral centers.

    Ok. that was a lot. Sorry. Didn’t realize I had that much to say… great post!!

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      December 9, 2009 10:11 am

      So well said, Shesten. I agree with everything you’ve said, and I think it’s great that you mention swearing in your reviews so each parent can decide for themselves. I just take exception to a reviewer bashing Ellen’s book, Tricks, based solely on the number of time he saw the word as he (admittedly) SKIMMED. It ignored context entirely, and in this case, that’s really important because Ellen spent hour upon hour researching the book, interviewing teens who really ARE or were involved in teen prostitution, because she wanted to do the subject – and the teens reading it – justice by portraying it in all its gritty, vile, sad, disturbing truth.

  4. gushingenthusiasm permalink
    December 8, 2009 10:37 pm

    I follow Ellen’s blog and twitter. And I am outraged every time I read about someone hassling her, or trying to ban her books, or canceling a visit to the school. Ellen’s messages are always powerful. People take the content out of context for her books. Yes, they are about prostitution, drugs, depression, suicide. But, they aren’t about how great all of it is!
    I am thankful to have had the parents that I did. My mother was the one who first gave me one of Ellen’s books to read; if someone had tried to stop a visit to my school, My parent would have raised hell, bringing up most, if not all, of the points you have listed here.

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      December 9, 2009 10:13 am

      You’re so right. And that’s the context part these parents and/or reviewers are missing. I don’t see how it’s any different than the movies they show teenagers in Drivers Ed that portray gruesome accidents. They’re cautionary tales. Are they tying to scare you? Shock you? You bet. Because you NEED to be scared and shocked.

  5. rosylee permalink
    December 8, 2009 9:14 pm

    This sort of censorship achieves nothing, it doesn’t ‘save’ children from exposure but rather, leaves them uneducated and wide open for exploitation. I would definitely not want someone else imposing their rules on my children because they deem to know what’s best for them. I am a parent who openly and honestly discusses reading material, drugs, alcohol, current affairs, human and animal rights with my girls. Of course they’re only young and our discussions are age appropriate, but there are no secrets, they are given enough food for thought that I hope will eventually give them the information they need to intrinsically motivate them to make sensible decisions as they get older.

    And can I just say that I am once again blown away by the measured and mature responses you’ve repeatedly been given on your blog by young adults. How can we, as parents, not give these kids the support and credit they deserve when it comes to processing the information they read in YA literature?

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      December 9, 2009 10:15 am

      Gah! I could not have said it better. I’m the same kind of parent, and I look at EVERY experience they have as a sounding board for discussion. Some of those experiences are wonderful but some of them are awful, frightening, shocking, horrific. But you know what? Those things are a part of life, too, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why, as a parent, you wouldn’t want to arm your child with the knowledge necessary to make good decisions when faced with them.

      But even if you DON’T, you definitely don’t get to choose for me and my child.

  6. December 8, 2009 8:42 pm

    I couldn’t agree more, Michelle. People used to ban and burn HUCKLEBERRY FINN because it included the n-word, not as a hurled epithet but as a word of the times. People don’t read HARRY POTTER today because it can allegedly lead toward Satanism (roll eyes!). I’ve read your book and I think it’s a marvelous, intriguing, mysterious adventure. I’ve read Jeannine Garsee’s books and she tackles drastic subjects like drugs, racism, and teen sexuality. Books like Louis Sachar’s HOLES and Wendelin Van Draanen’s FLIPPED also tackle hard topics. I think it’s GOOD that teens see these moments and realize they’re not alone. They can identify with someone out there, even if those people aren’t in the same school and are only fictional.

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      December 9, 2009 10:16 am

      Good point. And EVERYONE needs to know that they’re not alone, especially teenagers. It *is* a scary world out there, but pretending it isn’t doesn’t do a child any favors in the long run.

  7. December 8, 2009 5:45 pm

    I am so glad that doesn’t happen here, and many of the books I see on the US challenge lists are class texts here. And the ones that aren’t were still always available at the school library (unless they were taken out, of course… which was frequent).

    As for the rest of the arguments from those kind of parents: “Oh, please.”

    We were experiencing those things long before we discovered people had written books on them.

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      December 9, 2009 10:18 am

      Interesting, Catherine… It never occurred to me that censorship isn’t as big a problem in some other countries. Aren’t we (Americans) a funny society? Alternatingly in your face with the most vile stuff you can imagine and then prudish as can be…

  8. Angel Young permalink
    December 8, 2009 4:20 pm

    I guess I was lucky that my mom didn’t say “You can’t read THAT” to me. She reads most anything, even if it’s pro something she’s against, just to know more. I tend to do the same. And I will give my children the same opportunity — if they want to read it, they can. Now, some instances, if it’s something I know has a negative influence, with no positive side or hope in my eyes, I’ll talk to them about it first, and will wait until they are at an age they can understand you aren’t supposed to act that way/do those things. Like (and I know this will piss a lot of people off) I wouldn’t let my kids, especially if I had a daughter, read Twilight until I talked with her about it FIRST. I don’t agree with a lot of the themes presented in a positive light — like an abusive relationship being ever so “romantic”, or a girl’s goals being to become immortal and beautiful, be with her boyfriend/have sex, and to be married and have a child at 18. Bella didn’t want to finish school, she didn’t want to go to college, and she was ready to abadon her family and friends — for a BOY. When said boy left her in New Moon, she was ready to hurt herself, even kill herself, just to see him in brief little glimpses. When she finally moves on and puts her life back together, she drops everyone, including her best friend she’s been stringing along, to be with the boy and risk her life. And don’t even get me started on the Mormon propoganda, or the subltle theme of females submitting to males (Bella goes from being a strong, independent character, to being the most HATED character I’ve ever read about.)I’d explain this things to my daughter FIRST, and then she could read it. There are other books, too, but you get my point.

    I’ve read two and a half of Ellen’s books. I don’t see how they are inappropriate, especially if parents can condone Twilight (more specifically, Breaking Dawn, which is no better than an erotic novel) without thinking to talk to their kids. Ellen’s books show a sad bit of reality that can prevent teens my age (19) and younger from getting into a lifestyle we really don’t want to get into.

    And I totally agree on the swearing thing — I’m a good kid by most standards (minus the tattoo on my forearm & half neon red, half black hair. Some see that as a “bad kid” set of traits.) and I have a fairly dirty mouth, especially when I’m mad.

    Great post, Michelle!

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      December 9, 2009 10:21 am

      It sounds like you had amazing parents who raised an amazing daughter, Angel. And you made the most important point – these situations can create amazing opportunities to talk to your child about the world they live in. Doing so will prepare them to live in it and make good choices as they do. Do I wish I didn’t have to talk to my ELEVEN-year-old about sex? Yeah, but you know what? She’s already hearing about it on the bus (and not in a good way) and at school, so better me than them, you know?

  9. December 8, 2009 2:49 pm

    Right on! Haha. Seriously, though, you are absolutely right. This is completely ridiculous. I wasn’t sheltered growing up, ever. When I was very young my mom was a bit cautious about what I read, but she doesn’t censor me now that I’m a teenager. She doesn’t tell me what music to listen to or what movies to watch (most of the time, but we all know what kind of movies are out there now) so why should anyone else have that right?

    One of my friends parents decided she didn’t need to hang out with me because I listened to rock and watched/read Twilight because their Sunday school teacher was preaching that it was demonic. I lost my best friend because her parents convinced her what I liked made me, and I quote, “gothic”.

    Screw that. You hear worse stuff just by going to school, even a Christian school. Been there, done that.

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      December 9, 2009 10:25 am

      You make good points, Arya. I think it’s wise to shelter small children as much as possible, but even then, we tell them not to talk to strangers, to look before crossing the street. We PREPARE them to make decisions they may have to make. Decisions that may SAVE THEIR LIFE. Most teenagers know not to talk to strangers. They know how to cross the street. But they may not know how very hard it’s going to be when they’re friends (or the boy they think they love) are pressuring them to do drugs. Or when they need or want money for something and someone offers them some if only they’ll do one… small…. thing. It HAPPENS. It IS happening. Every day.

      A little kid may never be approached by a kidnapper. They may never HAVE to cross a busy street alone. But we prepare them for those realities, just in case and even though we really want to protect them from them. Doesn’t it just make sense to prepare teens as well?

  10. December 8, 2009 2:32 pm

    Wow powerful. It’s very true. I’m 18 and a freshman in college. Just left high school, but honestly kids are learning things early on in life. The word “fuck” was no big deal in middle school. And many teenagers out there resent being told what to do. A whole slew of parents cannot decide for other people’s children. Some parents like yourself may definitely be against that and may have a different view on what there children should be exposed to.

    So your argument is completely valid. If the parents don’t want their kids to hear what the woman has to say then let them opt out, but don’t make decisions for the mass teen population. Many are more mature than their years.

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      December 9, 2009 10:28 am

      So true, Elizabeth. And if it’s one thing I know and love about teenagers, it’s that they can spot a phony a mile away. So if someone like Ellen were to portray the world of teenage prostitution in a a watered down way, you, as a teenager, would know it. And you wouldn’t read it, which would also mean it wouldn’t do you any good.

      ALL good storytelling must first be authentic. When writers ask if they should include swearing or sex in their manuscripts, I ask them, “Does it happen that way? Because if it REALLY happens that way, you have to be true to the story and the characters in it.”

      And the stakes are even higher in a situation like this one.

  11. December 8, 2009 2:30 pm

    very well said, dear. No one has the right to tell a parent what their child can or cannot read–and I sincerely wish more parents would think rather then just react.

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      December 9, 2009 10:29 am

      Sigh. Wouldn’t that be nice?

  12. December 8, 2009 2:30 pm

    My parents had me pretty sheltered when I was growing up, but I was pretty much allowed to read what I wanted in my teens/pre-teens. I’m prudish enough on my own so I would skip parts that bothered me and I don’t think I ever really noticed swear words in books (not much in fantasy novels, really).

    I remember in 4th grade some girls had a VC Andrews novel with them and got in trouble, but I didn’t even know what they were talking about at the time! But I don’t think I would ever censor kids and their books. If they don’t get it from a book they WILL get it from the other kids in their class. I never swore growing up, but I had classmates all around me who did. So what if I read it in a book.

    I understand trying to keep kids safe, but kids today are so much different than when I was a kid and they are exposed to so much more. I think if you have a DIALOGUE with them about right and wrong, etc. And answer questions they might have if they hear or read something.. THAT is good parenting.

    Having someone else’s parents decide what I can or cannot read? Absurd!

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      December 9, 2009 10:31 am

      Again, you’ve hit on the KEY point. SO much better to use these situations as an opportunity to talk with your child. I understand that it makes some parents uncomfortable (I have three kids from 10-17 – believe me, I’ve had to talk about it all while coaching myself internally, “Keep a straight face, keep a straight face”!), but we have to put aside our discomfort and deal with the reality of the world these kids live in. Not the world we WISH they lived in. Or the world we want to BELIEVE they live in.

      The world they ACTUALLY live in.

  13. harmonybookreviews permalink
    December 8, 2009 2:28 pm

    I agree with you 100%. That fact that other people feel they have the right to decide what *I* read and who *I* can hear speak just ticks me off. If they aren’t going to let THEIR kids read the books, then fine. But NO ONE has the right to tell me what I can or can’t read. Ellen’s books are some of the most honest books out there and each one hits me hard. After reading CRANK, I finally understand *why* we’re supposed to “Say no”. Now I’m not saying it because some else told me I needed to but because I understand and I WANT TO. Oh, and the swearing thing? PLEASE. I don’t know ANY teenager that doesn’t swear. I do. And I’m a relatively “good” teenager.” If parents are going to tell their kids they can’t read a book because of that, then they’re obviously blind.

    Also, if any of my friend’s parents told me I can’t read a book, I’m sure as hell going to go find the book just because they told me I couldn’t.

    Amazing post, Michelle!

    • michellezinkbooks permalink*
      December 9, 2009 10:35 am

      Lol! At the conference when Ellen asked the teenagers what they’d do if someone else’s parents told them they couldn’t read a book, she said most teenagers would probably read it twice! And whether or not a specific teenager swears, I think we can all agree they at least HEAR it in their everyday life. I was shocked the first time I went to my son’s high school and heard one of the kids yelling, in full view of myself and my escort, “What are you doing, Bitch?!” Not to me. To someone else across the hall. The language itself didn’t shock me, but the fact that they didn’t CARE That adults were around DID. And this is in a small, rural town.

      Again, I’m not saying everyone should let their teens read books with swearing or sex or whatever! I’m just saying we, as parents, should have the right to choose for our own children.

      Thanks for posting, hon!

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